Rhodiola Rosea: An Age-Old Miracle Supplement

by Scott Reid

The market for supplements has grown exponentially in recent years. These products often promise to burn belly fat, increase muscle mass, speed up your metabolism and boost your energy, usually with little effort. While these claims are usually found to be exaggerated, more importantly, these chemical-based products lack longitudinal studies, and before long, they quickly remove miracle pills and powders from shelves for previously unforeseen health risks. Consequently, many people are looking for natural alternatives to synthetic compounds intended to enhance performance.

Rhodiola Rosea (Rhodiola, Arctic Root, Golden Root, Roseroot) is a natural herb that has seen use for centuries. Its multipurpose properties promote health and balance for the mind and body. This wonder herb combats depression and increases focus and concentration. In addition to mental health benefits, Rhodiola has been prescribed by doctors in conjunction with other therapies for the treatment of conditions ranging from inflammation to cancer and heart disease. In the last century, its notable usage has been for its targeted ability to improve weight loss and muscle recovery.

Instead of manipulating your body to do something unnatural, as is the case with many high-performance supplements, Rhodiola works primarily by promoting homeostasis. Homeostasis seeks to find and maintain balance (neutrality) throughout your body’s many internal systems. It’s the sustained rhythm of your heartbeat and breath as well as the maintenance of internal chemicals such as hormones and neurotransmitters. When your body achieves homeostasis, it can perform at optimal levels.


What is Rhodiola Rosea?

What is Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola Rosea is an adaptogen. Adaptogens fall into a special category of phytotherapy (plant-based healing). Adaptogens are plants that balance, restore and protect the body. They are a triple-threat to toxins, fatigue, and stress. Their three-fold powers help the body cope and effectively respond to chemical, environmental, and physical stress. The belief is that adaptogens heighten the body’s ability to make and use cellular fuel efficiently. In this way, Rhodiola acts as a buffer against fatigue resulting from stress.

Many ancient cultures utilised this powerful nutrient. The herb grows naturally at high altitudes in Asia and Eastern Europe. Serbians valued it so much that its place of growth and time of harvest was a closely guarded secret. They would trade it for fine luxuries such as wine and gold. They believed that drinking the herb would prolong life. It was tradition to give the herb as wedding gifts to signify longevity or marriage and fertility of the family. The Vikings used it for physical strength while Sherpas used it to climb high altitudes. The Chinese would go on expeditions for the golden root bringing it back to make tea and other medicines. It’s had continuous popularity in eastern traditional medicine believed to decrease depression, relieve fatigue, enhance work performance, and avoid altitude sickness.

Pedanius Dioscorides, the Greek physician, first wrote about the root in 77 A.D. in the De Materia Medica. It was then called Rodia Riza. It gained its contemporary name in 1725 from Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. In the late 1700s, it was included in the Swedish listing of all medical preparations, their pharmacopeia, officially establishing its medical relevance.

Over the last century, Russians have researched and used this root for a wide variety of reasons. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union looked to Rhodiola Rosea to assist in their competitions in the west. They found that it helps with harsh conditions (cold, altitude), mental health, work performance, insomnia, physical activity, and endurance.


The Mental Component

The Mental Component, Rhodiola Rosea

Every action taken starts with the brain sending a message. Therefore, we will start our exploration there, as well. Rhodiola Rosea has been shown to improve the brain’s reaction to stress by enhancing serotonin and dopamine functionality and suppressing the release of cortisol into the system.

Serotonin and Dopamine are neurotransmitters often mentioned in conjunction with depression. Both brain chemicals affect the perception of pleasure and the stability of mood. Rhodiola increases the transmission of the serotonin precursors tryptophan and 5-hydroxtryptophan. Among the list, serotonin is responsible for system regulation including respiration, appetite, blood pressure, and smooth muscle contraction. Dopamine works with your pleasure centres and executive function (decision making) part of the brain. Balanced brain chemicals promote contentment, while imbalance results in distressed mental states, notably depression. Thus, doctors have used Rhodiola alternatively or combined with anti-depressants.

When we get stressed out, our brain sends a message to our adrenal gland to release cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone released as part of our natural reaction to stress. It prepares our body for the fight-or-flight response. When our bodies stay in this heightened reactivity too long, our internal systems suffer. Our hormones become imbalanced risking thyroid problems. We have a weakened immunity, lowering our ability to fight off bacterial, viral, and toxic threats. Our bodies cannot process the sugar in our blood efficiently, which causes some to experience abdominal weight gain - a precursor to diabetes. Rhodiola works to counteract these negative effects by suppressing the release of cortisol. By doing this, Rhodiola helps calm the body down and promotes the return to homeostasis.

Stress refers to any strain on the body or the body’s processes. It can be the result of toxic compounds introduced into the body, environmental factors, or biological predisposition (genetics). Adaptogens seek to alleviate the body’s stress so that it can work efficiently. Rhodiola works specifically on stress by increasing the accessibility of serotonin in the hypothalamus and midbrain. It increases endorphins, moderates the release of opioid peptides (part of stress response). When the body is less stressed, it can work for you instead of against you.

Balanced brain chemicals also promote focus and concentration. Studies show that regular supplementation of Rhodiola Rosea increased bioelectrical activity in the brain. Results showed that participants had increased physical fitness, psychomotor function, and mental performance. They also saw better mental performance in tests, and heightened cerebral activity, meaning a possible increase in learning capabilities, attentiveness, and memory. Evidence shows this wonder root can also restore eating and sleeping patterns.


One Root, Multi-System Improvements

One Root, Multi-System Improvements, Rhodiola Rosea

Stress has links to heart disease. Rhodiola has been shown to promote cardiovascular health both as a treatment and possible prevention. It is especially useful for conditions brought on by stress such as hypertension and atherosclerosis (arterial plaque). It works by lowering the amount of catecholamine and corticosteroids released by adrenal glands. The root also reduces blood lipid levels and c-AMP released into the cardiovascular system. C-AMP is related to ATP. ATP is the body’s primary energy source which converts glucose into fuel. C-AMP acts as a messenger between the inner and outer cellular environment. Thus, it can assist in the uptake of calcium floating outside the cell and utilise it for better cardiovascular contraction. In this way, Rhodiola helps regulate heartbeat and correct arrhythmia.

The immune system relies on metabolic balance. When conditions are imbalanced, sickness is more likely to occur. Rhodiola has been shown to protect against radiation and toxic environmental exposures. It normalises hormonal releases, increases protein synthesis, removes ammonia from blood cells and serves as both a powerful anti-inflammatory agent and antioxidant. Oxidation damages normal cells and is understood to contribute to tumour and cancer development. Studies on Rhodiola’s antioxidant compounds suggest increased anti-tumour and scavenger activity. There is evidence it can suppress tumour development. Additionally, free-radicals known for their ability to develop into tumours are less prevalent. Russian studies on rats showed that Rhodiola extracts slowed down the growth of tumours by 39% and inhibited the spread of tumours by 50%. Lastly, Rhodiola increases the natural killer cells in the stomach and spleen protecting the body from viruses and other toxins before they are released into the liver and bloodstream.

Have you ever heard that your immune system depends on a healthy digestive system? The nutrients we give our bodies, and the way they are broken down is our primary source of fuel. When we don’t take in the right nutrients, every system suffers, but your immune system takes the hardest hit. In addition to natural killer cells, Rhodiola supports a healthy digestive system by aiding in the breaking down of stored fat particularly in adipose tissue (belly fat) so that we can use it as fuel. Rosavin, a compound found in Rhodiola triggers the burning of fat by stimulating lipase (digestive enzyme). It can also work to regulate blood sugar for those with diabetes. All results are best when coupled with regular moderate exercise.


Performance: Your Body on Boost

Performance Your Body on Boost

A key benefit to using Rhodiola is that it delays fatigue and optimises the utility of ATP. For this reason, Russians are known to use its properties for natural athletic enhancement. It’s true that this wonder herb improves work capacity with regards to coordination, strength, endurance, and recovery time. It’s an athlete’s dream.

Rhodiola increases the energy you have and the efficiency of how it is used. Rhodiola increases EPO (erythropoietin) which stimulates the production of red blood cells. Red blood cells transport oxygen to muscles. This increased oxygen allows them to work harder for longer periods of time. A study done on rats showed that those given Rhodiola could swim 25% longer. Additionally, Rhodiola assists in balancing the heart’s sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomic nerve impulses. Heart contractions pump needed blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. Optimal contractions facilitate the use of more energy.

With Rhodiola, don’t lose time between workouts waiting to recover. We’ve all been there. You push through an exhaustive workout then need to wait a couple of days before safely working that muscle group again. Not anymore. This herb’s anti-inflammatory properties, as researched by the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism in 2004, can soothe strained and exhausted muscles. It also increases the levels of RNA, enzymes, and proteins essential to muscle recovery. By promoting synthesis of glycogen in the muscles and liver (the anabolic process of muscle protein synthesis), and by stimulating muscle energy status, Rhodiola proves itself as a formidable workout supplement.

Despite this, Rhodiola isn’t just for the gym or competitive sport. There has been a significant positive correlation made between regular utilisation and being less affected by sleep deprivation. Women have experienced increased fertility while men have reported relief from sexual difficulties, particularly erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation. There are also links to increased focus and endurance to better workplace performance, especially in stressful work environments.


The Round-Up

Rhodiola Rosea, The Round-Up

Rhodiola Rosea is clearly a super-herb that can be utilised to boost a multitude of system performance. Studies have shown that it possesses antioxidant, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-ageing, anti-depressant and cardio-protective properties. The best part about this herb is that you get all the benefits without the setbacks. It can support the thyroid and adrenal glands without damaging them or altering their functionality. In fact, it has very few side effects making it the ideal choice when compared to mainstream supplementation on the market today.

Most common side effects are higher blood pressure and thin blood, both of which you should watch closely, especially if you have a pre-existing propensity to these types of conditions. Those with excitability, hypertension and coronary spasms should talk with their doctors before beginning this (or any) supplement regimen. There has been no adverse data for pregnant women although they are also encouraged to speak with their physician before starting or continuing the herb through the pregnancy and breastfeeding term. While the root is not recommended for children under the age of ten, this is not due to reported ill effects, but because the discovery of allergies is more prevalent in early years. By ten it’s assumed that parents will know what allergies their child has.

Why take a medicine cabinet of pills and powders when one herb can improve the functioning of many biological processes? Alleviate your depression, support your internal systems, and boost your focus, energy, and endurance all in one plant! The Greeks knew it. The Serbians knew it. The Russians know it. It’s about time you discover the multifaceted properties of Rhodiola Rosea today.

Scott Reid
Scott Reid


Scott Reid is a 2 x Britain’s Strongest Man U105kg winner (2007 & 2008) and IFSA World's Strongest Man U105kg Competitor. He is an expert in strength and conditioning and also coaches functional nutrition. Scott’s passion for understanding the human body and how to optimise every aspect of it has driven him to study under legends such as Paul Chek. Scott now coaches MMA Athletes, Strongmen and Bodybuilders to name but a few, helping them to implement a well structured diet and become more powerful, explosive versions of themselves.

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